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From Generation to Generation


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Hiding from the Nazis in the forests of Slovakia’s Low Tatra Mountains in the fall of 1944, in constant danger from the Germans occupying nearby villages, fourteen-year-old Agnes Grossmann and her family made the daring decision to escape high into the mountains and hike along treacherous ice-covered peaks to safety. Twenty-four years later, Agnes Tomasov — then married with two children — found herself on the run from post-war Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime and defected to Canada with her family, carrying only what they could fit in two suitcases.



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From Generation to Generation
Agnes TomasovThe Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs
Doris Bergen, Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Chair in Holocaust Studies, University of Toronto
Sara R. Horowitz, Director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies, York
Nechama Tec, Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of Connecticut
Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, Jerusalem
Naomi Azrieli, Publisher
Andrea Knight, Managing Editor
Arielle Berger, Assistant Editor
Mia Spiro, Associate Editor
Elizabeth Lasserre, Senior Editor, French-Language Editions
François Blanc, Editor, French-Language Editions, and Cartographer
Aurélien Bonin, Assistant Editor / Researcher, French-Language Editions
Elin Beaumont, Program Coordinator
Tim Mackay, Program Assistant
Susan Roitman, Executive Coordinator
Mark Goldstein, Art Director
Nicolas Côté, Layout, French-Language EditionsC o n t e n t s
The Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs
Series Preface: In their own words...
Historical and Geographical Timeline: Czechoslovakia 1918–1968
Family Tree
Family and Childhood
Living in the Forest
Starting Life Again
Finding My Destiny
A Family of My Own
In the Hands of the Secret Police
Three Dark Years
Time to Leave
A New Beginning
More Endings and More Beginnings
About the Azrieli Foundation
Also AvailableSeries Preface: In their own words...
In telling these stories, the writers have liberated themselves. For so many years we did
not speak about it, even when we became free people living in a free society. Now, when
at last we are writing about what happened to us in this dark period of history, knowing
that our stories will be read and live on, it is possible for us to feel truly free. These
unique historical documents put a face on what was lost, and allow readers to grasp the
enormity of what happened to six million Jews – one story at a time.
David J. Azrieli, C.M., C.Q., M.Arch
Holocaust survivor and founder, The Azrieli Foundation
Since the end of World War II, over 30,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors have immigrated
to Canada. Who they are, where they came from, what they experienced and how they
built new lives for themselves and their families are important parts of our Canadian
heritage. The Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program was established
to preserve and share the memoirs written by those who survived the twentieth-century
Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe and later made their way to Canada. The program is
guided by the conviction that each survivor of the Holocaust has a remarkable story to
tell, and that such stories play an important role in education about tolerance and
Millions of individual stories are lost to us forever. By preserving the stories written by
survivors and making them widely available to a broad audience, the Azrieli Series of
Holocaust Survivor Memoirs seeks to sustain the memory of all those who perished at the
hands of hatred, abetted by indifference and apathy. The personal accounts of those who
survived against all odds are as different as the people who wrote them, but all
demonstrate the courage, strength, wit and luck that it took to prevail and survive in such
terrible adversity. The memoirs are also moving tributes to people – strangers and friends
– who risked their lives to help others, and who, through acts of kindness and decency in
the darkest of moments, frequently helped the persecuted maintain faith in humanity and
courage to endure. These accounts offer inspiration to all, as does the survivors’ desire to
share their experiences so that new generations can learn from them.
The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program collects, archives and publishes these
distinctive records and the print editions are available free of charge to libraries,
educational institutions and Holocaust-education programs across Canada, and to the
general public at Azrieli Foundation educational events. Online editions of the books are
available free of charge on our web site, www.azrielifoundation.org.
The Azrieli Foundation would like to express appreciation to the following people for
their invaluable efforts in producing this series: Mary Arvanitakis, Josée Bégaud,
Florence Buathier, Franklin Carter, Mark Celinscack, Darrel Dickson (Maracle Press),
Andrea Geddes Poole, Sir Martin Gilbert, Pascale Goulias-Didiez, Stan Greenspan, Karen
Helm, Carson Phillips, Pearl Saban, Jody Spiegel, Erika Tucker, Lise Viens, and Margie
Wolfe and Emma Rodgers of Second Story Press.I n t r o d u c t i o n
It has been said in jest that what history teaches most is that here and now is better than then and there. For some people, this is not a joke
and it is certainly not a joke to Agnes Tomasov. In her boldly honest memoir, From Generation to Generation, Agnes shares the story of her life,
a life repeatedly buffeted by cruel winds of history. As if to prove that life’s struggles are never apportioned equally, Agnes survived
the Holocaust, suffered an iron-fisted Communist regime that willfully encouraged antisemitism as state policy, was crushed by the false hope
of liberating reform in her homeland and endured the doubts and insecurities that beset those who are forced to begin a new life in a strange
land. And in the end, she succeeded. She built a new life for herself and her family, a life secure and sheltered in a land governed by the rule of
Agnes tells her story through the eye of memory – memory of events, places and experiences to which she was witness – and memory that
to this day, for Agnes, remains as close to her as her own breath. And her memory has not dulled with time – on the contrary, it is as
remarkable in its clarity as her memoir is in its candour. At the same time, as with each of us, Agnes’s memories are inevitably the stored
remembrance of past experience – what she did, heard and saw. As much as she remembers, she cannot describe first-hand what lay beyond
her peripheral vision, that is, the larger historical context – international, national and local – within which Agnes’s own history unfolded. The
broad outline of that history is important to readers of this memoir and this introduction modestly attempts to provide something of that larger
historical context. It is offered as a complement to Agnes’s own moving story.
If our earlier years are the platform on which we build our adult lives, Agnes’s early years are telling. She was born Agnes Grossmann on
June 16, 1930, in Bardejov in northeastern Czechoslovakia. Her mother, Katka Kohn Grossmann, died when Agnes was only two years old and
she was barely three when her father married a woman who showed Agnes little warmth. Her brother, Ivan, was born a year later in 1934.
Although Agnes was close to her brother, she found the greatest comfort in summers spent with her mother’s family – her grandparents Zelma
and Armin Kohn and her beloved uncles Jozko and Bandi – in Levice, close to the Czechoslovak border with Hungary. In 1938, Agnes spent
her last carefree summer with her Levice family. Within a year, Levice would no longer be part of Czechoslovakia; Czechoslovakia would no
longer be an independent state, and, in many ways, Agnes’s childhood would be over.
Czechoslovakia was cobbled together out of provinces of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire in the aftermath of World War I. The new
country enjoyed relative political stability through the 1920s and into the 1930s. This is not to say that Czechoslovakia was problem-free.
Particularly difficult were minority ethnic and linguistic divisions. When Czechoslovakia was founded, its population included Czechs and
Slovaks as well as large German, Polish and Hungarian-speaking minorities concentrated on Czechoslovakia’s borders. While they were
citizens of Czechoslovakia, each of these national minority groups harboured irredentist political movements pressing not just for regional
language and cultural autonomy, but also for the political transfer of their particular region to what they regarded as their respective national
and linguistic homelands – Germany, Hungary and Poland.
This issue of irredentism grew increasingly acute after the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933. Nazi policy called for ingathering of
peoples and territories Germany claimed were inherently German, areas populated by German Volk, and it was a policy put into practice. In
1935, following a local referendum on unification, Germany unilaterally absorbed the Saar region that had been administered under a League of
Nations mandate since the end of World War I. A year later, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, the German military
marched into the demilitarized Rhineland and Hitler again “legitimized” the takeover by staging a referendum, this time an after-the-fact
referendum. In March 1938, after a series of provocative moves, Hitler sent his troops into his native Austria and announced its annexation to
Germany. With Nazi troops securing the seizure, yet another popular referendum was staged to validate the takeover. None of these Nazi
moves met with major resistance from either the local populations or censure by the countries that had defeated Germany in World War I.
Hitler next turned his attention to Czechoslovakia. In the name of “reclaiming” Germans into a greater Germany, Hitler demanded that the
Sudetenland, with its large ethnic-German minority, be ceded to Germany. The Czechoslovak government would have none of it but in Munich
in March 1938, Britain and France, fearing war with Germany and hoping Hitler’s expansionist appetite would be satisfied with the Sudetenland,
ignored Czechoslovak protests and agreed to the transfer of the Sudetenland and its population to Germany. Poland and Hungary, energized
by the German annexation of Czechoslovakian territory, demanded their own border adjustments. In parallel agreements, the Polish and
Hungarian ethnic border regions of Czechoslovakia were handed over to Poland and Hungary respectively. Czechoslovakia was shorn of more
than one-third of its population and territory. Included in the territory handed over to Hungary was the town of Levice where Agnes spent
childhood summers with her mother’s family. In the summer of 1938, with the transfer of Levice to Hungary only a few months away,
eight-yearold Agnes spent her last happy summer there. She would never see many of her maternal relatives again.
Britain and France had sacrificed Czechoslovakia in the hope of averting another war in Europe. It was a false hope – the carving up of
Czechoslovakia did not secure peace. In spite of repeated assurances to the contrary, Hitler was not content with the Sudetenland. In March
1939, Hitler ordered German troops across the Czechoslovak frontier to assume control of what remained of Czechoslovakia. The Nazis
partitioned the former Czechoslovak state and the western Czech regions of Bohemia and Moravia were designated a German “Protectorate”
under direct German control. Slovakia, where Agnes and her family lived, was declared independent but in reality was little more than a Nazi
puppet state. By seizing what remained of Czechoslovakia, Hitler’s claim that Germany’s territorial ambitions were limited to bringing ethnic
Germans and the lands they inhabited into Germany was finally seen to be a lie. Britain and France could no longer turn a blind eye to Hitler’s
expansionist agenda and pledged to defend Poland in the event it was attacked. That attack was not long in coming. On September 1, 1939,
Nazi Germany invaded and quickly conquered Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany.
The new Nazi-allied government in Slovakia walked a fine line between its need to follow the Nazi lead and its desire to act as an
independent state. Turning on Slovakia’s Jews and others labelled as enemies of the state served both these ends. Some of those who
opposed the Nazi puppet government fled Slovakia or went into hiding. Many more were arrested and eventually murdered. For Agnes and her
family, the establishment of a Nazi-allied state in Slovakia meant the imposition of Nazi-like racial laws. As a first measure, Slovakia ejected all
Jews from the military and government positions. But the circle of repressive anti-Jewish regulations quickly expanded. In short order Jews
were denied access to public amenities, including parks and sporting facilities. Legislation was passed permitting uncontested confiscation of
Jewish-owned businesses and property. Jews were even denied the right to drive cars or purchase first or second-class tickets on trains. But
far worse was yet to come. On September 9, 1941, the Slovak government bundled its anti-Jewish laws and regulations together into a “Jewish
Code” modelled on the 1935 Nazi Nuremberg Laws.
The Nuremberg Laws, passed into law by the German Reichstag in the autumn of 1935, included the Law for the Protection of German
Blood and German Honour that prohibited marriages and extramarital relations between Jews and non-Jews. A second sweeping law, the Reich
Citizenship Law, stripped German Jews of their German citizenship and, since they were no longer citizens, also stripped Jews of the protection
of the law. Since Jews could no longer legally claim German citizenship, it was also critical for Germany to define in law who was a German and
who was a Jew. The Nuremberg Law defined a German as a person with four grandparents with “German or kindred blood.” Jews were defined
as anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents. A person with one or two Jewish grandparents was a Mischling, a crossbreed, someone of
“mixed blood.” Thus, who was a Jew was not determined by religious belief or tradition. It was determined by lineage. Under the law, a Jew whohad converted to Christianity and his or her children and grandchildren were still legally designated as Jews. A Nazi government bureaucracy
was soon busy ferreting out so-called “hidden” Jews, scouring family trees for Jewish “rot” and investigating disputed cases of Jewish
The impact of the Nuremberg Laws and its Slovak facsimile, the Jewish Code, was devastating. Jews became a pariah people in the land
of their birth. In Slovakia, as in Germany, interaction between Jews and non-Jews was severely restricted and violators were severely punished.
The list of prohibitions went on and on and no measure designed to exclude Jews from the civil square seemed too trivial as Jewish lawyers,
doctors, teachers and journalists were barred from dealing with non-Jews. Jews were denied admission to state hospitals and, after the age of
fourteen, Jewish children suddenly found themselves barred from public schools.
The Slovak Jewish Code had barely been put in place when the Slovak government, a partner in Germany’s war effort, also joined Nazi
Germany in implementing the “Final Solution” against the Jewish population. Slovak authorities began rounding up Jews, including children,
and deporting them eastward, officially to toil in labour camps but in actuality sending them to their deaths. While apologists for the Nazi puppet
regime in Slovakia may argue that Slovak officials did not know that the Jews they deported were to be murdered, and for a time Slovak
authorities curtailed the deportations, there is little doubt that Slovak leaders did know and willfully collaborated with the Nazis in the systematic
destruction of the Slovak Jewish community. It has been estimated that approximately 70,000 Slovak Jews – almost 80 per cent of the Jewish
population at the start of the war – were murdered and their property stolen by neighbours or confiscated by the Slovak state.
In the case of individual Jews whose services were deemed essential to the state economy or to community well-being, an exemption
could be granted that included members of the individual’s immediate family. Such an exemption was granted to Agnes’s father, a respected
local dentist in Bardejov. An exemption from deportation did not mean the family was exempt from oppressive provisions of the Jewish Code,
however, nor did it afford any guarantee of permanent safety – an exemption could be cancelled without notice. But at least Agnes and her
family avoided the deportation that proved a death sentence for the vast majority of Bardejov’s almost 2,500 Jews, including many of Agnes’s
schoolmates. In 1942, local Bardejov authorities even prevailed upon the small group of exempt Jews to convert to Protestantism, arguing that
doing so would further protect them. Again, this measure provided them with only temporary respite. As the sounds of battle crept nearer,
Agnes’s father learned that Bardejov was to be evacuated. Worried that his professional skills might no longer be regarded as essential enough
to keep his family safe, he sent them to a small town in the interior of Slovakia, on the edge of the rugged and forested Low Tatra Mountains,
where they might pass as gentiles.
As Agnes and her family sought to blend in, the tide of war was running against Germany. The 1943 Soviet victory in the Battle of
Stalingrad proved a turning point in the war. With the Western allies preparing for the invasion of France, the Soviet Union went on the
offensive. The Soviet Red Army pushed westward. It gradually drove German troops out of Soviet territory and, in the summer of 1944,
advanced into Poland. Encouraged by the Soviets’ success, anti-Nazi Slovak partisans, many operating in mountainous forested areas and
joined by dissident units of the Slovak military, attempted to overthrow the collaborationist Slovak regime and link up with Soviet troops
advancing from the east. The effort was crushed by the German military and Germany assumed direct charge of Slovakia.
With Germany now in control of Slovakia, the Nazis gave priority to rounding up and deporting the remaining Slovak Jews. Agnes and her
family, fearing the Germans would ferret them out, escaped into the forest of the Low Tatra Mountains. Here, with other desperate Jews, they
found crude shelter and foraged as best they could for food and fuel, clinging to the local anti-Nazi partisans operating in the forest for
protection. As the Soviet troops finally pushed into Czechoslovakia, Agnes and her family accompanied a band of partisans on a perilous winter
trek through the mountains in the hope of reaching the Soviet lines. They succeeded and, as a result, were able to count themselves among
the small minority of Slovak Jews who survived the Holocaust.
Agnes was nine years old when the war began. She was fifteen when it ended with the German surrender to the Allies in the first week of
May 1945. For five years Agnes and her family had avoided the deadly fate that befell the vast majority of Slovak Jews. Now, with the
Holocaust finally over, Holocaust survivors faced the task of rebuilding their lives. It was not easy. Survivors across Europe struggled to
comprehend the catastrophic destruction that had been inflicted on their communities, their families and their lives. Nowhere would life go back
to the way it was. In Slovakia, many survivors – their families murdered, their property gone and their trust in their former neighbours shattered,
asked themselves what they should do. Should they try to rebuild their lives in Slovakia? Should they leave? And if they left, where should they
go? Who would have them? Many Slovak Holocaust survivors, hoping to begin again somewhere else, did leave and most of them collected in
Jewish refugee camps in Germany and Austria. Others, perhaps undecided as to what to do or clinging to the faint hope that missing family and
friends might yet return home, stayed – at least for the moment. Among those who stayed were Agnes and her immediate family.
If survivors faced an unknown future, so too did Slovakia. Recently liberated from the Nazis by the Red Army, Slovakia, with Soviet
approval, once again became part of a single Czechoslovak state. But pre-war ethnic tensions were quick to resurface. Anti-German sentiment
ran so high that, like many Jews, both Agnes’s father and her future husband changed their family names to something “less
Germansounding” – Grossmann became Gonda and Tomaschoff became Tomasov. Many Czechs who had suffered under direct Nazi rule were slow to
forget that wartime Slovakia had been an independent state allied with the Nazis. And many, both Czechs and Slovaks, were not ready to
forgive Britain and France for “selling them out” to the Nazis at Munich in 1938. It was the Soviet Union, not the Western allies, who had
liberated Czechoslovakia from the Nazis in 1945. In free national elections in 1946, the pro-Soviet Communist Party fell short of a majority but
did win the most votes and a Communist was installed as prime minister of a coalition government. Under this new government, economic
reconstruction proved painfully slow and Communist popularity began to slide. Fearing that an upcoming national election would sweep them
from power, the Communists seized control of the government in February 1948. The recently restored democracy evaporated as
Czechoslovakia slipped into the Soviet orbit.
While the surviving Czech Jews were grateful to the Soviet Union for liberating them from the Nazis and there were individual Jews in
positions of prominence both in the Communist Party and new Communist government, most Jews opposed the 1948 Communist takeover and
the end of democracy. As long as Czechoslovakia’s borders with the West remained open, many Jews voted with their feet. Between 1948 and
1950, almost 25,000 Jews left Czechoslovakia, most for the newly declared State of Israel. When Communist authorities closed
Czechoslovakia’s borders to further emigration in 1950, there were only about 18,000 Jews left in Czechoslovakia, barely 5 per cent of the
prewar Jewish population. Many of them might have left had the opportunity presented itself.
Among those Jews still in Czechoslovakia were Agnes and her family. Just eighteen when the Communists seized power, Agnes was at
first less concerned with the nation’s political life than with her own. While the Communist regime tightened its grip on Czechoslovakia, Agnes
was preoccupied with family and friends, with school and career options, and, later, with building a life with her new husband, Joe Tomasov,
who was also a Jewish survivor from Slovakia, and with raising their two children, Tomas and Katka. But there was no avoiding the scourge of
antisemitism. Hollowed out of the basic freedoms we often take for granted, it was not long before Czechoslovakia turned on its remaining
Jews. Antisemitism was rampant both in the Communist Party and among those who covertly despised it. Many closet anti-Communists
regarded all Jews as Communists or at least Communist supporters – and, indeed, there were Jews who held senior positions in the
Communist Party and government. Among them was the Party’s secretary general, Rudolf Slánský. At the same time, there were also Party
loyalists who mistrusted Jews, convinced that they cared more about their fellow Jews and Israel than about Czechoslovakia and the Party.
Anti-Jewish hostility spilled into the open in 1952 when, following the lead of Joseph Stalin, who initiated a purge of influential Jews in the
Soviet Union, the Czechoslovak Communist Party began its own purge of Jews, including Slánský. In a notorious show trial, Slánský andthirteen other high profile Party members, eleven of them Jews, were accused of conspiring with Zionists and other non-Party elements to
undermine the state. Slánský and the others were found guilty. Eleven, including Slánský, were executed. And attacks on Jews did not stop
there. Many Jews were arrested and jailed. Others were simply fired from their jobs.
After the death of Stalin in January 1953, Czechoslovak leaders in Prague ordered what turned out to be but a momentary lull in their
campaign of Jewish vilification. The government in Prague even approved a gradual release of “rehabilitated” Jewish prisoners. Outside
Prague, however, local police and court officials were less ready to let go of antisemitism – the arrest and imprisonment of Jews continued. One
of the many Czech Jews sent to prison in 1955 was Agnes’s husband, Joe. He would soon have company. In 1956, Israel defeated Egypt in the
Sinai War and the response from the pro-Egyptian Soviet bloc was immediate and harsh. The approximately three hundred Jews incarcerated
in Czechoslovakia after the Sinai War were joined by many more Jews accused of spying for the West or engaging in Zionist activities.
The families of imprisoned Jews – as Agnes would discover when Joe was sentenced to six years in prison on trumped-up charges – found
life increasingly difficult. Shunned by many of their neighbours and co-workers, and short of money, they learned that efforts to secure their
loved ones’ release, no matter how unjust their sentences, were seldom successful. And who might be next? No Jew felt safe in
Czechoslovakia and there seemed no way out. On rare occasions, permission to leave Czechoslovakia might be granted to someone so that
he or she might join family abroad, but an application for permission to leave for Israel or the West was sure to bring the authorities to the
applicant’s door. Much as they might want to, few Jews dared apply to leave. And any Jew caught trying to escape could count on a harsh
prison sentence.
Once Joe was finally released in December 1958, Agnes Tomasov and her family focused once again on making a living, raising their
children and rebuilding a home life. By the mid-1960s, restrictions in Czechoslovakia were beginning to ease and the Tomasovs were able to
travel outside the Soviet bloc, to Greece and – unheard-of for Jews in the Soviet sphere – to Israel. In 1967, the situation for Jews in
Czechoslovakia became precarious again, however, and, again, the flashpoint was Israel. After an escalation of tension along Israel’s border
with Egypt, Egypt’s military closed the narrow Gulf of Aqaba to all shipping coming into and going out of Israel’s southern port of Eilat. Israel
declared the Egyptian blockade to be an act of war, and, when the blockade was not lifted, Israel attacked Egypt. In what soon became known
as the Six-Day War, Israel defeated Egypt and its allies, who were again supported by the Soviet bloc. In retaliation for Israel’s victory,
Czechoslovakia joined the rest of the Soviet bloc – with the exception of Romania – in breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel. Another
crackdown on Czech Jews seemed to be imminent.
But the Czechoslovak government’s attention was soon focused elsewhere. After almost twenty years of Communist rule, whispered
voices, among them those of the Communist Party faithful, began expressing discontent with the state repression of individual rights and free
expression. Led by disgruntled intellectuals, journalists, public officials and educated professionals, there were increasing demands for greater
freedom. Some dissidents even blamed Czechoslovakia’s top-down decision-making process for the country’s poor economic performance. But
many Czechs who were agitating for change did not so much want an end to Communism as they wanted a kinder, gentler and more open
Communism. Some of them also favoured decentralization and greater local autonomy, especially in Slovakia, where many people resented
the political and economic influence of Prague.
Unable to still the rumblings of discontent, Czechoslovakia’s hard-line president, Antonín Novotný, saw his Party support erode. In the
autumn of 1967, First Secretary of the regional Communist Party of Slovakia, Alexander Dubček, challenged Novotný’s leadership and invited
Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev to see for himself the extent of the opposition to Novotný among the Party faithful. Brezhnev, surprised by the
level of anti-Novotný sentiment, sanctioned Novotný’s removal as Czechoslovakia’s leader. In January 1968, Dubček replaced Novotný as First
Secretary of the Czech Communist Party.
Dubček was no democrat, nor did he regard one-party rule to be problematic. The problem, as he saw it, was that the Czechoslovak
Communist Party had become unresponsive to changing conditions. What was needed was a Communist Party ready to build a street-level
connection with the people by demonstrating its readiness to embrace new ideas and support local and individual initiatives that promised to
improve living conditions.
In April 1967, Dubček announced a far-reaching package of reforms guaranteeing, among other things, freedom of speech, freedom of the
press and freedom of movement. For the first time, Joe Tomasov was able to travel to Canada to visit his sister, Aranka. There was also a
pledge to reform the economy that included opening the door to entrepreneurial initiative and increasing production of quality consumer goods.
Although multi-party government was not part of his reform package, Dubček promised that the expression of different and even dissenting
views would be encouraged as part of the national decision-making process. As a sign that a multi-opinion if not multi-party system would be
taken seriously, Dubček announced that the powers of the dreaded state security police would be cut back. He also pledged to decentralize
government somewhat, by reconstituting Czechoslovakia as a federation of two equal nations – one Czech and the other Slovak. On the
international level, Dubček vowed to improve relations with the West while continuing Czechoslovakia’s membership in the Soviet bloc.
This reform package could not be introduced overnight and Dubček foresaw a decade-long process that would usher in “Socialism with a
Human Face.” Public response to Dubček’s promised reforms was overwhelmingly positive and sparked a national mood of optimism referred
to as the “Prague Spring.” After being stifled for so long, the press was quick to test the regime’s tolerance of an open and free exchange of
ideas. Unthinkable only a few months earlier, newspaper articles critical of the Soviet Union and its policies began to appear. But not everyone
was caught up in the spirit of reform – fearful that power was slipping through their fingers, Communist hardliners pressed Dubček to back away
from his promised reforms. Instead, he raised public expectations still higher by announcing a Communist Party Congress for September 1968
that would be asked to endorse and officially implement his reform agenda.
Outside Czechoslovakia, Soviet-bloc leaders were shocked at the breadth of Dubček’s reform package. They were concerned the “Prague
Spring” spirit might spread and force them to introduce similar reforms. The Soviet Union pressed Dubček to accept far more limited and
controlled change. Rather than court Soviet anger, Dubček pledged Czechoslovakia’s continued loyalty to the Soviet-led Warsaw military pact,
promised to curb “anti-socialist” tendencies, prevent the formation of rival political parties and clamp down on excesses in the press. In return,
the Soviets agreed to withdraw troops it had stationed in Czechoslovakia and not interfere in Dubček’s upcoming Party Congress.
To further pacify the Soviet bloc, in August 1968 a Czechoslovak delegation joined those from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland,
Hungary and Bulgaria in signing the Bratislava Declaration that affirmed support for Marxism-Leninism and opposed all “anti-socialist” forces.
After the Bratislava conference, Soviet troops withdrew from Czechoslovakia but remained strategically deployed along the Czech border.
The Bratislava Declaration aside, the Soviet Union saw no on-the-ground change to Dubček’s plans and grew increasingly convinced that
his pledges of loyalty to the Soviet bloc were just empty words. Before the fever for reform could spread beyond Czechoslovak borders,
Sovietbloc leaders agreed to put an end to the whole business once and for all. On the night of August 20, 1968, twenty thousand Soviet-bloc troops
backed by two thousand tanks from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia. That very day, Joe Tomasov had
been sent to an international conference in Sweden. In the ensuing turmoil, he was stranded outside the country for two weeks. Recalling the
bloodshed of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Dubček called on the Czechoslovak population not to resist the invaders and Czechoslovak
troops were ordered to remain in their barracks. In spite of widespread public outrage at the invasion, incidents of scattered resistance and
even reported instances of individuals pleading with the advancing troops to turn around and go home, the Prague Spring was finished. Gustav
Husak, once a reformer sympathetic to Dubček, was installed as head of the Czech Communist Party. A purge of reformers followed.Many Czechs and Slovaks did not wait to see how post-Dubček Czechoslovakia would fare. In the confusion following the Soviet-bloc
invasion, Czechoslovakia’s borders with Germany and Austria lay open. Seizing the moment, 70,000 Czech citizens fled westward – among
them were an estimated 3,400 Czechoslovakian Jews, including Agnes, her husband and their children.
Most of these refugees eventually settled abroad. Agnes and her family were selected to come to Canada as part of a Canadian
government refugee resettlement scheme. Few among these Czechoslovak refugees likely knew that the path they followed to Canada had
been paved by others. First among them were Displaced Persons. At the end of World War II, Europe was awash in refugees, commonly
referred to as Displaced Persons or simply DPs. Canada at first rejected any notion that it might offer sanctuary to any of these DPs.
Restrictionist Canadian immigration regulations in place at the end of the war severely limited immigration of southern and eastern Europeans
in general and Jews in particular. Nor was there any significant pressure on the Canadian government to change the regulations – there was
certainly no great public outcry demanding that Canada’s door be opened to the hundreds of thousands of DPs languishing in refugee camps in
Germany, Austria and Italy. With regard to these refugees, Canada initially supported a plan to repatriate all of them back to their countries of
original citizenship. The government reasoned that if refugees went home, there wouldn’t be any refugee problem. When it became clear that
more than a million DPs would not voluntarily agree to repatriation – particularly Holocaust survivors who were forever uprooted from their
former homes and non-Jewish DPs who refused to return to homelands that were now within the Soviet orbit – Canada denied it had any
obligation, moral or otherwise, to take them in.
How is it then that thousands of DPs eventually resettled in Canada? It was certainly not out of humanitarian concern for the refugees.
Canada’s eventual interest in taking in thousands of DPs was out of self-interest: In 1945, many economists predicted that, without the
economic engine of wartime spending, Canada and the West more generally was poised to slip back into a 1930s-like depression. They were
wrong – after a lumbering start, the post-war Canadian economy expanded rapidly. The demand for Canadian goods and services grew both at
home and abroad. For the first time since the 1929 onset of the Great Depression, the biggest peacetime economic problem was not
unemployment but a shortage of workers to meet the nation’s job needs.
By late 1946, labour-intensive Canadian industries were lobbying Ottawa to relax immigration restrictions to permit the import of immigrant
labour. Big business may have been bullish on immigration; the Canadian public, however, remained skeptical. Would the economic recovery
continue? Those whose memories were shaped in the hungry 1930s harboured doubts. Furthermore, Canadian immigration officials, who for
many years saw their duty as guarding the Canadian gate against all newcomers, were also unsympathetic to renewed immigration if it meant
the influx of DPs – and especially of the Jewish DPs who stood first in Europe’s exit line. The public seemed to agree with them. A 1946 public
opinion poll found that Canadians would rather see recently defeated Germans allowed into Canada than Jews.
But anti-immigration forces would be outflanked. Bolstered by optimistic projections for continuing Canadian economic growth, in 1947 the
government announced it would re-open Canada’s door to immigration, nevertheless holding fast to ethnic and racial selectivity. Thus, priority
was given to recruiting immigrants assumed to have a proven ability to assimilate – settlers from the United Kingdom, Western Europe and the
United States. Accordingly, immigration recruitment in Britain and Western Europe, particularly Holland, was the first to get underway.
Labour-intensive industries, pleased by the government’s re-opening of immigration, were less pleased with the rules on ethnic selectivity,
arguing that, for the economic boom to continue, employers needed access to the DP labour pool. The government grudgingly agreed, even as
it continued to monitor the public mood for any negative reaction to the arrival of DPs – and especially to the arrival of Jews. When negative
public response turned out to be far less than the government feared and the demand for labour continued to grow, racially and ethnically
based immigration restrictions against eastern and southern Europeans, including Holocaust survivors, were gradually lifted.
In 1956, when the DP labour pool had dried up, the Hungarian refugee crisis erupted. That year, a popularly supported uprising against
Communist rule in Hungary was crushed by invading Soviet-bloc troops. As the last flickers of anti-Communist resistance were being
extinguished, a flood of Hungarian refugees poured westward into neighbouring Austria, just as the wave of escaped Czechoslovakians would
arrive twelve years later. The plight of exiled refugee Hungarian “freedom fighters” touched Canadians. The public and press called on the
Canadian government to act with generosity in offering Hungarian refugees a Canadian home. But Ottawa remained cautious. Federal security
personnel quietly warned that the Soviet bloc was using this refugee crisis to plant spies in unsuspecting Western countries, including Canada.
The Canadian government, for its part, seemed less concerned with spies than with who would pay the cost of a Hungarian resettlement
As the government dithered, public pressure on them to take action continued to build. Private agencies and provincial governments
stepped forward with pledges of financial support for refugee resettlement. Press from all sides of the political spectrum castigated the
government for its inaction in the face of human suffering. Hard pressed, the government finally announced that a path had been cut through
the jungle of immigration red tape. The minister of immigration hurried off to Vienna and hard on his heels came immigration teams assigned to
skim off the cream of the Hungarian refugees before other refugee-receiving countries got them first. Routine immigration procedures, including
medical and security checks, were set aside until after the refugees arrived in Canada. In relatively short order, almost 37,000 Hungarians were
resettled in Canada.
In spite of the success of this refugee resettlement program, immigration officials insisted the Hungarian episode was a one-time exception
to normal immigration procedures. Time would prove them wrong. In 1968, as the Prague Spring was being crushed by Soviet-bloc tanks,
thousands of Czech and Slovak refugees, including Agnes and Joe Tomasov and their two children, crossed out of Czechoslovakia into the
West. It was a replay of the Hungarian episode as the Canadian public and media demanded the Canadian government act quickly and with
compassion in bringing its fair share of Czechoslovak refugees into Canada. This time, without stalling, the Canadian government approved a
program to bring thousands of homeless but well-educated Czech and Slovak refugees to Canada. Between September 1968 and the end of
1969, Canada took in approximately 12,000 Czech and Slovak refugees. And Canada did well by doing so. These refugees were
disproportionately young, well-educated and skilled. About 70 per cent of refugee household heads were in their child-rearing years and many –
including Agnes and Joe Tomasov, an engineer – were skilled professionals with post-secondary education. The Tomasovs resettled in
Toronto and built successful new lives for themselves, for their children – now called Tom and Kathy – and for their grandchildren.
There is an expression in Yiddish that roughly translates as “People plan and God laughs.” Whatever her parents might have planned for
Agnes when she was born, no one – not her parents, not Agnes, not anyone else – could have imagined how the twists and turns of history
would shape Agnes’s life. But Agnes has proved herself no victim of history. As a child survivor of the Holocaust, as a young wife and mother in
anti-Jewish post-war Communist Czechoslovakia, as an accidental immigrant to Canada, Agnes has refused to concede her independence of
mind or action. To the contrary, she has pushed back against the very idea of defeat. Her determination to openly and honestly share her story
with others is very much in character.
Harold Troper
University of Toronto | OISE

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Historical and Geographical Timeline:
Czechoslovakia 1918–1968
Czechoslovakia’s borders shifted several times over the course of the period covered in
Agnes Tomasov’s memoir, and often in ways that had a direct impact on the course of
her story. The map on the previous pages depicts both the border changes and the towns
and cities that are mentioned in her memoir and the following is a timeline of these

1918 Following the end of World War I, the Republic of Czechoslovakia is created at the Paris
Peace Conference. It is made up of the states of Slovakia, Moravia, Austrian Silesia, Bohemia
and Carpathian Ruthenia that were formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tomáš
Masaryk is elected first president of the newly independent state.
1920 Czechoslovakia’s new constitution establishes a centralized parliamentary system and,
over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, the country enjoys relative political stability.
1933 Hitler comes to power in Germany.
1935 Tomáš Masaryk steps down as president and is replaced by foreign minister Edvard
September 1935 The Nazis introduce the Nuremberg Laws that strip Jews of their civil rights as
German citizens and separate them from Germans legally, socially and politically.
November 9–10, 1938 A series of planned attacks against Jews over the course of twenty-four
hours, Kristallnacht – the “Night of Broken Glass” – is often seen as an important turning point
in Hitler’s policies of systematic persecution of Jews.
May-September 1938 Hitler demands that the Sudetenland, a Czech border area principally
comprised of ethnic Germans, be ceded to Germany. On September 30, Germany, Britain
and France sign an agreement in Munich that allows the Sudeten territory to be incorporated
into the German empire.
October 2, 1938 Poland is awarded the area of Tešín, an important coal mining centre in which
35 per cent of the population are Poles.
November 2, 1938 Hungary gains over one million hectares of Czechoslovakian territory along
their border in the so-called Vienna Award. Levice, the birthplace of Agnes Tomasov’s mother
and the home of her maternal grandparents, uncle and cousins becomes part of Hungary, as
does Košice, the town where Agnes’s mother died. Bardejov, where Agnes Tomasov lives with
her family, remains part of what is now called the Czecho-Slovak Republic.
March 15, 1939 Hitler breaks the Munich Agreement and invades and occupies the Czech
territories of Bohemia and Moravia, establishing them as a German protectorate. Although the
Slovak Republic is granted nominal independence under the right-wing regime of the Catholic
Hlinka (Slovak) Peoples’ Party led by Father Jozef Tiso, it is controlled by and allied with Nazi
Germany. Nonetheless, the areas of Slovakia where Agnes Tomasov lives do not come under
direct German occupation until October 1944. By the end of March 1939, the independent
Republic of Czechoslovakia has completely ceased to exist.
April 18, 1939 Slovakia begins passing its own version of the Nuremberg Laws. Later that
month, Jews are dismissed from government positions.
September 1, 1939 Germany invades Poland and World War II begins.September 19, 1939 Slovak Jews are expelled from the military. Many more discriminatory laws
follow. Jewish children are expelled from schools, for example, and Jews are barred from
public recreational facilities. Between 1940 and 1941, Jews lose most of their civil rights.
April-November 1940 New anti-Jewish laws escalate discrimination and marginalization of Jews
in Slovakia. The First Aryanization Act, for example, requires the transfer of Jewish-owned
property to non-Jews; Jews are required to register with the government and state their
financial status; and the Second Aryanization Act completes the transfer and liquidation of any
businesses still owned by Jews. By the end of this period, Jews have been almost completely
excluded from social and economic life.
June 22, 1941 Germany invades the USSR and compels Slovakia to join the invasion forces.
Although successful at the beginning, the German invasion soon bogs down.
September 9, 1941 Slovakia passes the “Jewish Code,” which contains an additional 270
antiJewish measures, including a measure ordering Jews to wear a yellow Star of David.
April 18, 1942 About 400 Slovakian Jews are deported to Auschwitz.
May–October 1942 More than 2,000 Jews from Bardejov, where Agnes Tomasov lives, are
deported to the Lublin district in Poland. By the end of this period, more than 58,000 Jews
have been deported from Slovakia to Poland, where most are murdered in Sobibor or
November 1942 The Battle of Stalingrad begins.
February 1943 German forces surrender to the Soviet army at Stalingrad – a key military
turning point in the war. From that point on, Germany is never able to regain the offensive in
the east. Throughout the rest of 1943, Soviet offensives liberate most of Russia, Belorussia
and the Ukraine.
March 1944 Groups of anti-Nazi Slovaks begin a plan to overthrow the collaborationist Slovak
government and their Nazi protectors and link up with Soviet forces in the mountainous border
area between Poland and Slovakia.
June 1944 More than 1,000 Jews are deported to Auschwitz from Levice, where Agnes’s
grandmother lives.
Summer 1944 The Soviet Red Army advances into eastern Poland.
August 27, 1944 Soviet partisans kill twenty-eight Germans in central Slovakia; Germany
announces the occupation of Slovakia two days later, and the anti-government and anti-Nazi
uprising, known as the Slovak National Uprising, begins.
August 31, 1944 The anti-government and anti-Nazi partisans are defeated in eastern and
western Slovakia by the Germans.
September 1944 The turning point in the war for central Slovakia, where Agnes and her family
are hiding out in the Low Tatra Mountains. Fierce fighting continues between Soviet and
German forces on Slovakian soil in the months that follow, with different areas changing
hands at various times. At one pivotal point, Agnes and her family are surrounded by German
forces and decide on a fateful course of action.
October 28, 1944 The Slovak National Uprising is officially quelled by the Germans.
Late 1944 and early 1945 The territories of pre-war Czechoslovakia are liberated by the Soviet
Red Army with some help from Czech and Slovak resistance.
May 1945 Soviet troops liberate Prague and occupy most of pre-1938 Czechoslovakia.
May 9, 1945 Germany surrenders to Soviet forces in Berlin, ending the war in Europe.
May 16, 1945 With Soviet approval, Edvard Beneš and his government-in-exile return to Prague
to re-establish a liberal democratic regime in a newly restored Czechoslovakian republic. With
the exception of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, which is annexed by the Soviet Union,